Response to Drug Testing for Food Stamps

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Representative Greg Morris of Vidalia got a lot of attention a couple of weeks ago promoting a proposed bill that would require Georgians receiving SNAP/food stamps to pass a drug test before receiving help to feed their family.  

Bills of this sort are often presented as an effort to insure that taxpayer’s dollars are being used responsibly and effectively. Here at ACFB we know how important it is to use resources wisely - the success of our work supporting hungry families is dependent upon using limited resources effectively to respond to an ever-growing need. We also know that these types of bills are anything but responsible. A more appropriate description for legislation of this sort would be: prohibited by law, mean-spirited, and unnecessary.  

SNAP is a federal program and federal law does not allow this kind of drug testing as part of the SNAP program. Rep. Morris knows this, which makes his actions all the more confusing and fiscally irresponsible. Surely Rep. Morris’ valuable time could be better spent working on legitimate pursuits.

The fact that bills of this sort are prohibited by federal law should be enough to end this conversation, but we think that it’s worth making a few other points as well.  

Is Rep. Morris suggesting that Georgians struggling to make ends meet during this period of prolonged, historically high unemployment are more likely to use drugs?  If so, he’s wrong, and we know that because this isn’t the first time someone has attempted to target struggling Americans in this way.  

States have tried to pass similar laws about other benefit programs, for example TANF (Temporary Assistance to Need Families). TANF used to be known as “welfare”, and it is administered by the states, which have broad latitude in determining who gets benefits and how they qualify. The state of Florida thought this meant it could implement drug testing for its TANF recipients, but the federal courts struck down that law as unconstitutional.    

Interestingly enough, during the time that the Florida law was in place, the state’s own records show that less than three percent of recipients tested positive for illegal drugs, mostly marijuana. That's three times lower than the average rate of Florida’s general population. Far from being a responsible and effective use of taxpayer money, the Florida experiment ended up costing the state money for all of the reimbursed negative drug tests. Because the Florida law required that those who passed the drug test be reimbursed for the cost, Florida spent $118,140 reimbursing applicants. Because this was more than would have been paid in benefits to the few who failed the test, the bill cost the state an extra $45,780. The state lost thousands of dollars on a false premise.  

The reality is that bills of this type ultimately end up adding more burdens to the lives of the working poor and preventing our most vulnerable neighbors from accessing the help they need - 87% of SNAP recipients are children, seniors, adults with disabilities, and adults taking care of children. Bills like the one suggested by Rep. Morris put one more barrier between hungry Georgians and the resources they need to support their families.

Thankfully it is easy to correct some of the misconceptions that Rep. Morris has about who needs emergency food assistance and SNAP to put food on the table. We invite Rep. Morris to visit one of the 2,300 partner agencies of the Georgia Food Bank Association, most of which are congregations, and look in the faces and hear the stories of the families that he so distrusts. We invite him to talk to the hard-working volunteers who know that their congregation and their community cannot make up the difference every time a politician decides to play politics with hunger. Since the Great Recession hit, the Atlanta Community Food Bank has almost doubled our output to our partner agencies, and yet the cuts keep coming.  

We can imagine many more responsible and efficient ways that Rep. Morris, as a public servant, could spend his time and effort in truly making lives better for his constituents.

--Laura Lester,
Advocacy, Atlanta Community Food Bank